Bruce Robison has spent the last seven years in a bunker. Well, not just any old bunker — the Bunker, his analog-centric recording studio in Lockhart, Texas, just south of Austin. That’s where Robison conceived and continues to perfect the Next Waltz, a project equal parts record label, think tank and musical playhouse.

The artist behind songs like “Travelin’ Solder” (taken to No. 1 by the Chicks), “Angry All The Time” (a No. 1 for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill), and “Wrapped” (No. 2 for George Strait), Robison knows his way around a song. After all, he recorded the single best song ever written about Willie Nelson — “What Would Willie Do?” from his Country Sunshine album. So it only made sense that the Next Waltz dedicated its purpose to capturing the most organic elements of the most well-crafted songs.

Bruce Robison

At its core, the Next Waltz is about artists collaborating on, recording and releasing great music. Now with four LPs of songs from some of country and Americana’s best under its belt, the Next Waltz moves on to a truly special task: honoring the music of Nelson.

Recorded live on an outdoor strange in front of 5,000 people, One Night in Texas: The Next Waltz’s Tribute to The Red Headed Stranger (available April 28) is a sprawling tribute to a global icon and one of Robison’s personal heroes. Featuring artists like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Sheryl Crow, Margo Price and more, One Night In Texas is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of album. Which makes the story of how it came together even more unbelievable.

How long has One Night In Texas been in the works?

Honestly, not that long. The folks at Luck, Texas, came to me about being a band leader for a Willie Nelson birthday show, and I was just so happy — almost like a life dream, and I told them that. It was so magical — I felt like it needed to be documented. So we decided to record it, and I was flabbergasted by how it turned out. It sounded like 1975. And then I was flabbergasted that all the artists who performed gave me their permission to release the recording.

Wait — so you recorded the album before you even knew you’d be allowed to release it?

Well, it was supposed to be a live show, not even an album. They’d decided to do this show, then they started booking these big-name artists. And then [Willie’s sister] Bobbie Nelson passed away. Shortly after that, the Luck people came and said, “Willie wants to play a set after you guys.” It really was just this magical thing that happened little by little. I don’t think any of us knew what it was going to become. After it all came together, they probably would’ve hired somebody other than me to put together the band. They probably would have hired whoever is doing it at the damn Hollywood Bowl [a Nelson birthday celebration in Los Angeles April 29 and 30] or something. [Laughs]

So there wasn’t much time to “produce” the album then?

We didn’t even have a rehearsal. We got 10 minutes with each artist, so we went on stage and had no idea how it was going to go. But I knew I wanted to have a big band that was capable of playing all the parts like on the records.

I had a buddy of mine record it, not having any idea what we were going to get. That speaks to why I started the Next Waltz. It’s been a 30-year quest of asking, “Why did things sound better 40 years ago? Why does Willie and Family Live and Frampton Comes Alive! or Live from Deep In The Heart of Texas by Commander Cody — why is that sound completely different from the live records they do now?” So it’s always been that quest. And when we got the recording back, I just loved the sound of it. It sounded like people having fun. It was old-school. If the ’70s were actually the way they said they were, where they didn’t really have any plans, that’s the way it was that day.

Margo Price

This is the best-sounding live record I’ve ever heard. If not for the obvious crowd noise and stage banter, I don’t think most people would even be able to identify that it’s live.

I appreciate it hitting you that way, because it hit me, too. You know, “I don’t know why I like this, but it just feels good.” A lot of what we try in the studio is similar to this record. It’s a lot of instruments bleeding together and just happy accidents — things you can’t control but you try to control. And this was completely out of our control. Some of these songs we mixed, and some of them we didn’t. It’s a document of a moment in time with people who are just getting together out of a pandemic and playing some of the greatest music that’s ever been written. I think the spirit of it comes across.

Was there a moment during the show where you realized you were getting something special?

A few, actually. I texted Willie’s right-hand man, asking for his set list so we’d be sure not to play the same songs he’d play. I asked, “What’s the deal with ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain?’” because he doesn’t play it much. When Nathaniel Rateliff told me he wanted to play it, I hoped we could do it how they did it originally on Red Headed Stranger. When you hear it on our recording, the place goes totally silent, and we do it just him and me. When Willie’s solo comes, the band kind of comes in, and the crowd just responds. It’s electric every time I hear it. There was also a moment where Emily Gimble played the piano solo that her granddad Johnny Gimble played on the original recording. It was a spiritual moment for this song that I’ve heard a million times.

And Willie clearly had a profound impact on your music, too.

I don’t think I could’ve existed without Willie Nelson’s music. The song “Angry All The Time” changed my life. I was very young when I heard Willie Nelson — I mean, I was probably 6 years old or something when his music was playing around my house. The songs and themes he was putting out at that moment were similar to what was happening with my family and my friend’s family. It was so formative in a way I probably couldn’t make sense of at the time. He’s just been such a North Star for so many people — certainly all of us on that stage.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

Is this the most eclectic group of artists on a project released by the Next Waltz?

The short answer is probably yes. But that’s been my mission from the start. It’s always a struggle at the beginning when you’re trying to get people you know, and you’re trying to get people who have a following. It was such a struggle the first few years trying to figure out what the Next Waltz is. I wanted it to be the old Austin genres, like with the Armadillo [World Headquarters] or the old days of Austin City Limits. It included everything, but it all made sense through the Austin vibe.

It seems like what the Next Waltz is doing is where the rest of the industry is starting to head in terms of collaboration and continually releasing songs.

It’s been a long process for me, but I agree with you. It’s tough these days, because all the support stuff that was there when I was a younger person in the music business — the people who refined the songs and helped them find a home — doesn’t really exist anymore.

I spent 10 years not getting any cuts in Nashville before I decided I wanted to do something more fun. And then you slowly come to the reality that if nobody is going to listen to this, you might as well be creative. And come up with a cool collaboration. I see it like the ’50s, where you had all the labels, and you could have Ritchie Valens happen with nothing if you just had a song that felt fresh. We’re trying to embrace that.

Even though this was live, it was the perfect project for the Next Waltz, because what I try to come back to every time is the songs. That’s all that matters. So we try and be a place where you’re going to hear really well-crafted and thought-out and well-executed songs, and there’s no one better than Willie for that.

Photos courtesy McGuckin Entertainment PR